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Oh, but he needed a diversion.
William Wentworth, Earl of Kendrick, gazed about the crowded hall of his ancestral estate. Every member of the gentry for miles around had come to celebrate his son's birthday with dinner and dancing. All but one member of the local aristocracy had also graced Kendrick Hall with their presence. Even though he had never met the missing Lady Everard, he was fairly certain she knew that any Everard was forever unwelcome in his home.
But his other guests did not seem distressed by her absence. They promenaded along the gilded walls, wandered out the three glass-paned doors to the terrace that ran along the back of the house and danced to the strains of a string quartet. The glow from the twin crystal chandeliers glinted off velvet, reflected off satin. Voices rose in conversation and good cheer. Yet Will kept remembering other balls, other dinners, some held far away, where jasmine scented the air. The memories made him long to pull off his dramatically tied cravat and dive into the pond behind the house to escape.
But tonight he must play host. After all, he had only a borrowed hostess. With a remarkable dearth of females in his family, he had had to prevail upon the kindness of his nearest respectable neighbor. He was merely glad that the elderly Mrs. Dallsten Walcott, who had known him since he was born, had been willing to help.
Still, he felt the breeze of fans plying as he gazed around the room, noted the speculative glances of a dozen ladies. They thought his long-awaited step into Society meant he was seeking to marry again. No chance of that. No reason. He had an heir, even if watching his seventeen-year-old son dance with Mrs. Dall-sten Walcott made Will feel a great deal older than his thirty-five years.
Another reason he so badly needed a diversion.
Perhaps he should dance as well. Mrs. Dallsten Wal-cott was looking in his direction, lips pursed in determination. As the highest-ranking gentleman present, he supposed dancing was expected of him. But he had never done things simply because they were expected. Promenading held as little interest, and he knew engaging his neighbors in conversation was dangerous. After nearly a decade on the diplomatic circuit beyond the safe confines of Cumberland, Will had too many opinions that didn't align with theirs.
So he held up the wall, arms crossed over his green wool coat, and watched as his fifty-some guests thoroughly enjoyed themselves. The gold candle sconce beside him gave back a warped picture of his facedark wavy hair, thick slash of brows, forest-green eyes. He thought the frown was the most accurate.
He shook it off, forced a smile. He ought to be proud of this evening. Mrs. Dallsten Walcott had done a fine job. The music was elegant, the menu for the supper to come equally sophisticated. The parquet floor gave back a shine under the dancing slippers of his guests. Along each wall and the mantel of the marble fireplace, jade vases held gardenias from his conservatory, their perfume drifting through the hall.
But the fairest blossom was strolling down the opposite wall from him, her lithe figure reflected in the windows overlooking the terrace.
She had hair like the burnished gold of Egypt tumbling in curls behind her; skin like the palest ivory from Africa. In her cerulean satin gown, she reminded Will of sunlight on the Aegean Sea. She moved with the energy of sunlight, too, her steps sure and swift. The turn of her head told him she was looking for someone.
Will straightened off the wall. Who was she? He'd grown up knowing half the people in this room. The other half had either married into the Evendale valley or been born after Will had left at eighteen. Oh, how he hoped she wasn't married. She was exactly the kind of diversion he needed.
He took a step forward, then stopped himself. What was he thinking? A lady should not be used as a diversion. How many times had he watched his brother make that mistake? A lady was meant to befriend, to serenade, to court. He never planned on courting again. He should allow her to find the person she was seeking and stop wishing it was him.
"Well, that's done." His son hurried off the dance floor and braced his back against the wall as if intending to defend the space from desert chieftains. To Will, his son still seemed too young to be the heir to the earldom. His face looked soft under his thatch of black hair, his frame too thin. He was just beginning to understand what life might hold for him. Will envied him that.
"Do you find dancing with a lady so onerous?" he asked his son, returning to his spot along the wall.
James, as he had insisted he be called now that he had finished schooling at Eton, shook his head, further disheveling his hair. "Mrs. Dallsten Walcott isn't a lady, Father."
Will raised his brows, mouth curling up in a smile. "I'm sure her family will be sorry to hear that."
Jamie, as Will persisted in thinking of him, grimaced. "I didn't mean to disparage her. She simply isn't a lady of interest to me." He shifted against the wall as if finding his blue wool coat too tight or the gilded paneling too hard. "She is old enough to be my grandmother, and I have specific ideas for my bride."
Will felt as if the room was warming and adjusted his cravat. He truly wasn't ready for his son to choose a wife, even if Will had been Jamie's age when he'd first fancied himself in love. That had ended in tragedy. The only good to come of it was the young man standing beside him now.
"For tonight," Will said, "perhaps you should focus on being a good host."
Jamie's brown eyes, inherited from his mother, crinkled around the corners. "I will if you will. I don't think Mrs. Dallsten Walcott approves of you right now. You haven't danced once."
Will glanced across the room again and sighted his hostess. Though her hair was a silvery white, her carriage remained unbent, her steps firm. He didn't think her pride would allow it otherwise. Tonight in a poppy-colored gown with an inordinate number of flounces, she dominated the hall. She was glaring at him down her long nose, foot tapping, and the jerk of her head toward a bevy of belles clustered by the doors to the veranda told him her intentions.
"Perhaps I'm as fussy as my son in the lady I choose," Will said, clapping Jamie on the shoulder. He still had a couple inches on his son, and some of those broad shoulders on the lad were from the artful use of padding by their tailor.
Jamie, however, sobered. "I have been meaning to talk to you about that. I know it's poor timing, but would you be willing to break away for a few minutes and meet me in the library?"
This was not the diversion Will had had in mind, and he knew where his duty lay tonight, even if he found playing host difficult. But the look in his son's eyes was his undoing. He'd missed so many opportunities to be of use to the boy over the years, and he knew the days were swiftly approaching when Jamie would no longer bring his concerns to his father.
"Of course," he said. "I'll leave now to throw Mrs. Dallsten Walcott off the scent, and you follow when it's safe."
Jamie's smile was relieved.
Will wandered through the room, pausing to chat with this gentleman, compliment that lady, all the while keeping a wary eye on his hostess. He was disappointed to find that the beauty who had caught his attention earlier had vanished, and he could only hope she'd found what she'd been seeking. He made his way out of the hall, across the center corridor of the house and into the west wing, where his library sat.
The faint music from the dance cut off as he shut the door behind him, and he felt the crowded shelves closing in. A shame he could not take more pleasure in the library at Kendrick Hall. The books were excellent, he knew, with everything from thick tomes on history to more recent novels of adventure. Unfortunately most of his time in this room was spent on estate business. He consoled himself with the thought that his ancestors must have felt a similar need to flee, for the rear wall was entirely made up of a bow window overlooking the grounds, with a center door that led out onto the terrace.
The shutters were closed over the view tonight, the estate ledgers put away in one of the glass-fronted bookcases. Either Jamie had alerted their butler or his staff had anticipated Will's needs because a merry fire was burning in the grate of the white marble fireplace, and the lamp on his desk cast a golden glow over the room.
But in the absence of the noise from the party another sound caught his attentiona soft whimper and sniff. Will took a step deeper into the room. "Who's in here?"
He heard the gasp, and then that golden head popped into sight over the back of the satin-striped sofa that faced the fire. Tears wet her fair cheeks, and her rosy lips were parted in surprise.
The look propelled him forward. Will strode around the sofa, went down on one knee before her. "Tell me who made you cry, and I promise he will regret it even more than I do."
She smiled through her tears, such a brave upturn of those lovely lips. "You are too kind, sir, but I fear there's nothing that can be done."
He knew the feeling. There was nothing that could be done when his wife had died moments after bringing their son into the world. There was nothing that could be done when his older brother had been murdered, and Will had had to return home to comfort his father and take up his new role as heir. There was nothing that could be done when a bout of influenza had carried off his father two years ago.
I'm so sick of hearing that nothing can be done, Lord!
He took her gloved hands and held them in his own. Her fingers were long and slender, but he felt a supple strength in them. "Perhaps," he murmured, "if you were to tell me the problem, we could find an amicable solution."
She searched his gaze as if looking for hope. Those dark brown eyes reminded him of Saharan wells, giving restful relief from heat and travel. She had every right to pull back from his grip, order him to mind his own affairs. He only hoped she could tell that his intentions were honorable.
And yet his lips seemed to have other ideas. Before he even knew it, he was leaning closer. Like filings to a magnet, she drew closer as well, until he caught the scent of roses and their faces were mere inches apart.
The library door opened with a crack as loud as thunder, and Will jerked back. The lady stared at him, two roses blooming in her cheeks, and for an odd moment, Will had the insane notion that they were the source of the captivating scent.
Jamie strode into the room, gaze lighting on the sofa. "Oh, good. You're here."
Will stood, even as the lady rushed to her feet.
"Of course I'm here," she said, turning to face his son as she smoothed the wrinkles from the blue of her gown. "Isn't this where you said you'd meet me?"
Will felt as if he'd stepped under one of the icy waterfalls that plunged from the fells. So that was why she was at the party. She'd been searching the hall, for Jamie. She was waiting in the library, for Jamie.
Was she crying over his son as well?
"I suggest," he said to Jamie, pulse pounding in his temple, "that you explain yourself. Immediately."
Something of what he was feeling must have shown on his face, for his son hurried around the sofa to take up his place at the lady's side. With Jamie standing so close, it was apparent the woman was older than he was, somewhere between twenty and thirty, Will would have guessed. What would a woman who had to have seen much more of Society want with his untried son? His unease ratcheted up another notch.
"It's all right, Father," Jamie said, raising his chin as if to defend himself and the lady next to him. "I asked her to join us."
"Father?" The word came out in a squeak, and all color fled from the woman's face. She turned on Jamie. "You never said anything about your father."
What was all this? Was this woman less than a lady? Why was she here? What hold did she have on his son?
And what hold had she already gained on Will that he wished so desperately for her to be innocent?
Samantha, Lady Everard, wanted to dash across the colorful Oriental carpet at her feet and escape. Never in the eight years since she'd first made her come out in Society had she ever been so embarrassed. Given the antics of her three guardians and cousins, that was saying a very great deal. She glared at her longtime friend Jamie, who immediately quailed.
"Samantha, Lady Everard," he mumbled, "may I present my father, William Wentworth, Earl of Kendrick?"
Samantha dipped a curtsey, lowering her gaze to the shine of the earl's evening pumps. "An honor, my lord."
When she straightened and looked up, she found he had taken a step back, and his face had stiffened. She wasn't sure what had upset him, her presence in his home or her friendship with Jamie. But she could feel his disapproval radiating out of him with as much heat as she'd felt when he'd leaned toward her.
For a moment there she'd thought he might actually kiss her, this stranger who had stumbled upon her. That wasn't altogether surprising. She never had the least trouble turning a gentleman up sweet. She simply hadn't found one she was willing to marry.
And knowing who he was assured her that he'd never offer her marriage. If the stories were true, he'd already won and lost his true love. The local ladies must be in mourning at the thought of a handsome earl on the shelf. She'd certainly noticed him when she'd first entered the hall and had begun searching for Jamie. A head taller than most of the men in the room, he was difficult to miss.
But there was something else about himthat sable hair waving around his head as if it refused to be tamed, that lift of one corner of his mouth, the light in his green eyes that said he was game for adventure.
Not, unfortunately, at the moment. Unless she missed her guess, he was now thoroughly annoyed.
"I believe we agreed Lady Everard would not attend," he said to Jamie.
What was this? Would he ban her from his home? Did he hold her in even greater contempt than she'd expected? Samantha glanced at her friend in time to see him frown.
"I thought she couldn't attend," Jamie protested. "I didn't know she had returned to Evendale until I stopped by the manor to give Mrs. Dallsten Walcott my opinion on the silver we intended to borrow."
Ah, that was it. She probably made them uneven at table. "So I arrived unexpectedly and late as well," Samantha summarized, returning her gaze to her host and offering him her most charming smile. "Forgive me, my lord. If it's any conciliation, I didn't intend to stay long, just until I spoke to Jamie, I mean Lord Wentworth."